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From mistakes, Clinton has learned, adjusted

She stresses her experience, especially as first lady, as her chief qualification to be president. Her career includes both accomplishments and missteps.

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Her endorsement of the reform outraged some loyal supporters, including her mentor, Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. Clinton had interned for Ms. Edelman while in law school and, as first lady of Arkansas, was chairman of CDF's board. Edelman's husband, Peter, resigned his post as an assistant secretary for Health and Human Services in protest.

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"In the painful aftermath, I realized that I had crossed the line from advocate to policy maker," Clinton writes in her book "Living History." "I hadn't altered my beliefs, but I respectfully disagreed with the convictions and passion of the Edelmans and others who objected to the legislation. As advocates, they were not bound to compromise…."

Her rift over welfare with the Edelmans, she writes, was "sad and difficult."

Acquiring foreign-policy credentials

Clinton remains the only first lady to have had an office in the White House's power center, the West Wing. In many important respects, she did operate at the level of a top aide or even the vice president.

But she did not have a security clearance or attend National Security Council meetings, and despite her talk of having visited some 80 countries as first lady, her efforts on the campaign trail to turn some of them into major diplomatic ventures have backfired.

Earlier in the primary season, Clinton trumpeted her role in bringing together Catholic and Protestant women in Northern Ireland, in an apparent effort to show that she was instrumental in settling the overall Northern Ireland conflict. Her anecdote set off a battle of claims and counterclaims by others involved in the peace process, leaving a haze over the whole story. As a result, a part of the press narrative is that candidate Clinton has a tendency to exaggerate her role in the successes of her husband's administration.

Her five-plus years on the Senate Armed Services Committee may in fact give more heft to her claims of defense and foreign-policy expertise than her travels as first lady. After two years as the junior senator from New York, she fought hard to join Armed Services – the first New York senator ever to serve on that committee.

"She did that to shore up her commander-in-chief credential," says Michelle Swers, a political scientist at Georgetown University who has studied Clinton's Senate career. "She already had two strikes against her – one, that women are generally not perceived as stronger on defense; the other, that her name was Clinton. Bill had bad relations with the military. She had to repair both of those things."

Clinton spent time courting the services, meeting with generals, and studying the issues, in addition to protecting New York military bases. Ms. Swers calls Clinton's effort a success. "Between her and Obama, she's seen as the one who's experienced on national security," she says.

An uneven leadership record